Fr. Leo Lessard, lover of nature and his vocation, dies

GREEN BAY — When Fr. Leo Lessard celebrated his 50th jubilee of priesthood in 2010, he told The Compass that he wanted to spend his remaining years trying “to be closer to God. What I really want is to be closer to the Blessed Mother and to Jesus. I crave that. I am on my knees praying for that.”

Fr. Leo Lessard (Diocese of GReen Bay photo)

Fr. Leo Lessard, 87, died on March 1.

Born in Niagara, Wis., on July 6, 1930, to Louis D. and Olive (Beaumier) Lessard, he attended Niagara High School. He worked at several jobs before attending St. Francis de Sales Seminary, Milwaukee. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Stanislaus V. Bona on June 11, 1960, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Green Bay.

Fr. Lessard’s first appointment was as assistant pastor at his hometown parish of St. Anthony in Niagara, and then as assistant pastor at St. Philip the Apostle, Green Bay. In 1964, he was granted permission to spend time with the Maryknoll Fathers, in Maryknoll, N.Y. He returned to the Diocese of Green Bay in 1965, and served as assistant pastor at St. Paul, Combined Locks, and St. John, Green Bay, and then as administrator at St Joseph, Marinette. In 1970, he was appointed pastor at St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, with stations at Crooked Lake, Silver Cliff and Mountain. He said that he found his true place in the north woods. “I like the room up here,” he said. “I like to walk in the woods, and have the trees and the forest.”

Fr. Lessard loved nature and lived in his home on Bear Lake near Lakewood until recently. He loved to hike, ski and fish.

One fishing friend was Msgr. Paul Koszarek, who was to give the homily at Fr. Lessard’s funeral.

“We did a lot of fishing together,” Msgr. Koszarek said. “He was also part of our ‘Vatican ski team’ – a group of priests who went out West once a year (at least 40 times). We just disbanded a year or two ago.”

Msgr. Koszarek remembered his friend as spiritual, “very faithful to prayer, with great devotion to Blessed Sacrament and a special devotion the Blessed Virgin Mary. He led a rather difficult life, but I found him never to complain. He always kept a cheerful manner and was always gracious to people.”

Fr. Philip Dinh-van-Thiep, pastor at Lakewood, said Fr. Lessard continued to offer sacramental help for many years at the parish and its missions, as well as at St. Ambrose in Wabeno. He also noted the older priest’s devotion to St. Gemma Galgani and to the poor, especially “Friends of Haiti.”

“Father really loved being with the people, and was always happy when children shook his hands or hugged him before or after Mass,” said Fr. Dinh-van-Thiep. “Through his countless conversations and friendly visits to people’s homes, Father indeed had touched the life of so many individuals and families.”

While serving as pastor at St. Mary (1970 to 1981), Fr. Lessard oversaw renovations to the church, including his own designs for the Old and New Testament windows that now grace the south narthex. Subtly hidden figures of animals and other images of nature are portrayed in the glass.

“That’s the way I wanted it,” Fr. Lessard told The Compass. “I made them redo one panel because the fish was too dominant.”

He served as pastor at St. Benedict in Suamico, and, later, at Immaculate Conception, Florence, and Sacred Heart, Aurora. Fr. Lessard retired in 2000 and moved back to the Lakewood area, where he added a hermitage in his basement. He also built his own casket and kept it in his living room. Msgr. Koszarek said it served “as a reminder of his own mortality.”

At the time of his jubilee, Fr. Lessard spoke about a healing ministry that he and a fellow priest led during their earlier days. He said that he knew some people had been healed by God because of that. He also spoke of asking for healing for himself and of a time when “the Lord was very close, a time when, after praying for so many,” he asked for healing for himself. He said he heard the Lord answer, “Leo, if I don’t heal you, will you still love me?”

Even during his declining years, when he could no longer celebrate Mass, Fr. Dinh-van-Thiep said Fr. Lessard still was content to offer the cup at Communion, thus proclaiming his ongoing love of God.

Msgr. Koszrek put it simply: “He had his share of crosses and he always seemed to bear them graciously.”

The funeral liturgy was to be held at St. Mary of the Lake, Lakewood, on March 7, with Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Robert Morneau as celebrant. Burial will be in the parish cemetery.

Survivors include Fr. Lessard’s sister, MaryJane Weiher, Arizona; his brothers, Richard (Mary) Lessard, Arkansas, and Thomas (Doris) Lessard, Franklin, Wis.; numerous uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews.